BRIGHTON, ENGLAND – A gamble by captain Michael Leitch to go for broke when a last-minute penalty would have handed Japan a more than credible draw against fancied South Africa will go down as one of the most audacious decisions in Rugby World Cup history.
Trailing by three points and with the end of the game only seconds away, Leitch opted for a scrum rather than the straightforward shot at goal that would surely have leveled the score at 32-32, and was rewarded with the try that sealed Japan’s stunning victory.
Japan kept the ball in hand, sweeping right then left before replacement wing Karne Hesketh dived over in the corner to clinch a 34-32 triumph.
“We chose to scrum rather than kick because they were one man down and we could use the advantage,” Leitch said, referring to the yellow card that sent Springbok prop Coenie Oosthuizen off in the dying minutes.
“I decided that we wanted to win rather than draw. I didn’t want to disappoint the boys.”
Coach Eddie Jones described the decision as courageous.
“We just kept on hanging in there, hanging in there. Today we were more than brave, we stuck at it and the courage by Leitchy at the end to go for the try, when we could have taken the kick and got a draw . . . To have the win is a fantastic result.”
Saturday’s sensational result is a vivid illustration of the closing gap between the top-tier teams and the rest.
At the 1995 World Cup, Japan conceded 21 tries in a humbling 145-17 defeat against New Zealand. But over the past 20 years Japan has made enormous strides, culminating in a victory that throws up the appealing prospect of unpredictability at this year’s tournament.
Much of Japan’s recent progress has been credited to the tactical input of coach Jones and naturalized players such as Leitch, who have boosted the domestic game.
The New Zealand-born captain moved to Japan at the age of 15 and has come through the junior ranks.
Try scorer Hesketh also hails from New Zealand, as does influential lock Michael Broadhurst.
Jones — and the rugby-watching Japanese public, no doubt — has no qualms about the elevation of naturalized imports to the national side.
“When you are bottom of the food chain (in rugby) like we are, you have to work with what you’ve got,” he said.
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